8 thoughts on writing about personal experience

Yesterday I wrote about how I think it’s important to be fair in writing about others when describing our personal experiences, but at the same time not letting those concerns stop us from writing about ourselves.  Over the years, I’ve developed some rules of thumb for these kinds of essays:


1.  Is it necessary and true?  My ex-husband’s hurt feelings over a casual comment I made about him in an essay made me realize that what I’d written about him wasn’t necessary to tell the story – the story wasn’t about him and he didn’t figure in except in this minor aside.  It wasn’t necessary.


2. Does it need to be broadcast throughout the known universe?  I’ve had bitterly painful experiences that I want to write about, mostly for catharsis, and there is something healing about the process.  That doesn’t mean I need to immediately find a market for what I’ve written or post it on my blog.


3.  Can it be as effective (or possibly more effective) as fiction?  Some conflicts I’ve been through have found their way into my fiction, where they work better and don’t require me to defend myself for writing about the situation.


4.  Can it wait until the principals are dead?  For particular kinds of memoir, you may want to wait until the people you want to write about can’t be hurt over what you want (or need) to say about what happened.


5.  Are you prepared for the backlash?  Understand what libel (and slander) is, and make sure you’re not doing it.  Also be aware that people react in weird ways even to things you and I might think are complimentary or at least neutral.


6.  Remember what it feels like to be on the other end.  We all have filters we use to perceive ourselves.  Other people’s perceptions, however true and honest, can be jarring.


7.  How involved is ego and revenge?  When you’re smarting, it’s easy to see personal writing as payback time.  I have a family member I’d love to excoriate in print because of her basic jackassery, but the only purpose it would serve would be to slap said family member publicly, and that’s not what I’m about.  I’m sure I’ve done my share of jackassery, and I don’t really want to see it on the front page of the New York Times (or the back page of the Washington Post, but I’m not bitter).  At any rate, this family member will show up in a novel sometime, and that’ll be just as fine, plus my jackassery will not exceed hers, which it would if I just did things out of meanness.


8.  Don’t let the fear stop you.  Meet your fear, say hello, take baby steps, ask others for advice, reflect on what you need to say and why you need to say it. Then do as you must.